Editor’s note: We would like to thank Nishai Moodley from Stellenbosch University, Stellenbosch (South Africa), for providing this piece. If you would like to share your writing center’s experience during COVID-19, please submit via WLN.
The Covid-19 pandemic has forced the education sector in South Africa to undergo a technological and pedagogical reform that highlights online learning and teaching, as well as its resources and infrastructure for online accessibility. The infrastructural and academic needs around online learning implicate the development and enhancement of reading and writing skills, therefore there is a present and unique opportunity of which writing centres can greatly contribute to. The author’s experiences’ as a writing consultant at the Writing Laboratory Language Centre at Stellenbosch University, and an academic tutor to first years in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, has revealed the struggles related to online learning. The skill of academic writing has deep political and pedagogical meanings, and this article shows how communication and professionalism can enhance this skill, moreover such techniques can continue once the Covid-19 outbreak has passed.
In online learning, the factors of professionalism and communication threaten the working relationship between writing consultants, or tutors, and students. Professionalism notes dress-code, knowledge creation, punctuality, and interpersonal skills relating to empowerment, and confidence (Ryan & Earles, 4 – 6). In contrast, communication looks at participation, engagement, and language use. Communication is a challenge because online learning is not entirely accessible to learners. After the national Level 5 lockdown, many students were left without sufficient network coverage, internet connectivity, computers/laptops, and smartphones. Not forgetting airtime and data expenses, also an adequate working space at home. Online platforms such as Skype and MS Teams, were used for writing consultations, as well as forum chatlines on SUNLearn, the university’s web-based applications.
Online learning has an awkwardness: when a meeting begins and everyone is present, yet all microphone functions are on ‘mute’; also, when a question is asked in the tutorials and there are no responses. Oversleeping is a factor where many students miss their appointments as early as 9am, additionally students attending classes in pyjamas. The observation of time wasted in online communication comes with technicalities and computer literacy in using online platforms. Technicalities consider sound functions, time lags, and background noise, as well as explaining the ‘share-screen’ function. Ultimately, one spends too much time talking about how to use the online platform, especially the ‘share-screen’ function, that delays the lesson. Here, the writing consultant must work according to the students’ technological needs. The anonymity of online learning also challenges communication without eye contact, gestures, and active participation.
February 2020 marks when Covid-19 hit Africa and the start of the university calendar. This also introduced isiXhosa consultants, alongside Afrikaans and English writing consultations at SU’s Language Centre (Language Centre). The module of which the author tutors for, has also introduced multilingualism in the classroom with isiXhosa, English, and Afrikaans. All learning material is made available in isiXhosa, English, and Afrikaans and online consultations went forward with the students’ language preferences. Here, the infrastructure of the learning space (writing centre and classroom) adapts towards a multilingual setting, necessary for the intellectual stimulation. Language is thus pedagogical to ensure understanding and inclusion in the learning space. Additionally, language in online learning can help students across race, gender, class, geographic origin, as well as educational and socio-economic background markers.
As an education reform, academic and computer literacy is as important as multilingual pedagogy. Through language and infrastructural provisions, online learning can still deliver the pedagogical goal of epistemology, critical thinking abilities, and offering a validated, and reasoned perception in academia (Perutz, 17). Aiken says that to combat racism means to have constant conversations around race. Similarly, to address social and climate issues in a writing centre, means for writing consultants to care and listen to students about their academic work, furthermore, to help develop their critical thinking skills and voice. While there is a fine line between academic writing and creative writing (Anderson, 26), creativity is still encompassed in thinking through social injustices. Comprehension and language are thus significant, especially when the South African society is primarily multilingual. A reform in education looks to consider a hybrid education of online teaching alongside classroom participation, as well as the inclusion of language use and multilingual learning. In South Africa, the goal of a hybrid and multilingual education after the Covid-19 pandemic will turn writing centres into a place of political and personal transformation. The challenges presented by the Covid-19 pandemic has enforced three lessons: a hybrid education consisting of online and face-to-face learning; the inclusion of multilingual learning, as well as equal dynamics of communication and professionalism between students and academic staff.
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“Writing Laboratory”, Language Centre: Stellenbosch University, 2020. https://www0.sun.ac.za/languagecentre/?page_id=240